KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It only took 90 seconds for Tom Thibodeau to launch off the Timberwolves bench. Before the first quarter ended his voice was ringing around the building — disputing a travel call on Gorgui Dieng, demanding his team play defense, screaming for an and-one call on a Shabazz Muhammad put-back, exhorting Nemanja Bjelica to take an open shot.
Working, working, working the refs; it only took him 2½ quarters to get his first technical in a long, long time.
In the week leading up to Saturday’s preseason opener with Miami at the Sprint Center, Thibodeau — who hadn’t coached an NBA game since May 2015 — had downplayed how important his return to the bench was.
But it was. So, after his team had rallied from a 19-point lead early in the third quarter to win 109-100, he admitted it.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said, smiling almost sheepishly. “Actually, I enjoyed it. It was good to be back.”
And if he worked the officiating crew a little hard? “Those guys are good guys,’’ he said. “It was a long year last year. I missed ’em.’’
As expected, the Timberwolves — the last NBA team to play a preseason game this season — opened up a little choppy, allowing the Heat free access to the rim. Miami shot 57.5 percent while building a 15-point lead. But, with that lead up to 19 early in the third, the game changed.
Displaying the toughness and intensity that Thibodeau has promised will be a hallmark of the team, the Wolves roared back. With Karl-Anthony Towns scoring 13 of his 20 points the Wolves ended the third quarter on a 39-17 run to take a three-point lead into the fourth. And then the second unit of Kris Dunn, Muhammad, Bjelica, Cole Aldrich and Brandon Rush took it home.
Towns finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Andrew Wiggins scored 19. Muhammad (14), Bjelica (12) and Rush (11) combined for 37 points off the bench, and the second unit hit seven of the Wolves’ 10 three-pointers.
Thibodeau? He finished the game the way he started it. Pacing the sideline by the scorer’s table, treating the game like anything but a meaningless exhibition.
“That’s what he does, man,” Zach LaVine said. “But it’s all right. We need that. He pushes us.’’
Said Towns: “You want the coach to be like that. So passionate, so into the game.’’
The Wolves were so up-and-down, but it all kicked into place in the second half, when they held Miami to 35 percent shooting. For the game Thibodeau liked the Wolves’ edge on free throws made (29- 18) and rebounding (51-41). He also liked a team that worked out of a 19-point hole together.
So, all in all, a decent start. The team might have been a little rusty early, but Thibodeau was in midseason form.
“I’d prefer not to get down 19 points,” he said. “But you have to win in different ways.’’